Excavations begin for Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves search

TULSA, Okla. (KJRH/CNN) - After 99 years, the city is looking for the truth.

Excavations began Monday at a cemetery where experts are searching for possible mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

While the official death count stands at 36, historians believe there could be as many as 300 victims. Inch by inch, crews are digging into history.

“We’re going to be starting off with the heavy machinery, which you’ve all seen there today. We will switch over from using the heavy machinery work to doing hand excavation,” said Oklahoma State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck.

A team of scientists and historians from the universities of Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida are in Tulsa to excavate at Oaklawn Cemetery.

“They are doing, basically, kind of an inverted pyramid to stair-step it down, to get down to that lower level, where we are going to be excavating that area to determine if there are human remains that are present,” Stackelbeck said.

They’re searching a 16′ x 9′ area, where the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey found an anomaly in October of 2019 with ground-penetrating radar.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum initiated the investigation to find if there are any victims buried in mass graves from the massacre.

“In Tulsa, if you’re murdered, we are going to do everything that we can to find out what happened to you and to render justice for your family. It should not have taken 99 years,” Bynum said.

“I did my first oral history interview with a survivor in 1975, so for the past 45 years, off and on, I’ve been researching and writing about this event,” said Scott Ellsworth, a historian at University of Michigan:

If the team happens to find human remains, the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey said there will be no recovery right away.

“There are a lot of logistical considerations that we need to make sure are in place appropriately,” Stackelbeck said.

She said the preservation of any remains is critical to finding the cause of death and confirming if they belong to any of the race massacre victims, but until then, the excavation efforts will continue for the next three to six days.

“(I’m) very hopeful that we can have some answers by the end of this effort,” Stackelbeck said.

“Our commitment from the city government, though, is that we’re going to follow the truth on this wherever this takes us,” Bynum said.

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